Planet Duke: Biomedical Research on the Banks of the Amazon

November 5, 2012

Surrounded by a thick, green blanket of Amazonian rainforest, Iquitos, Peru, is the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by roads. Only a small airport and the Amazon River, which snakes away toward Brazil, connect its nearly 500,000 residents to the larger world. But that hasn’t stopped William Pan from making Iquitos a home base for his research.

Pan, an assistant professor of global environmental health, has spent much of the past five years in Peru, where he is working to understand how development and environmental changes are affecting the spread of diseases such as malaria. Part of his work focuses on modeling how people and disease-carrying mosquitoes are moving through the rainforest to predict where and among whom the disease may arise. His data are helping Peruvian health officials evaluate malaria-prevention efforts and target new areas for intervention.

Tracking malaria: Collecting blood samples from Peruvian fishermen. Credit: William Pan

But another lasting edifice of Pan’s work in Iquitos is that of a 100-year-old Spanish tile building on the banks of the Amazon, where Pan and a handful of U.S. scientists have set up a sophisticated lab for biomedical research. Pan pooled resources with collaborators from Johns Hopkins, Tulane, and the Peruvian NGO Prisma to buy the building, a relic of Iquitos’ late-nineteenth- century rubber boom, and outfit it with equipment for studying disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The lab has hosted two Duke grad students who are conducting research in Peru and typically employs about twenty people, who are paid from the researchers’ grants.

“I wouldn’t exist without the lab,” says Pan, who came to Duke in 2011, the same year the lab opened. “It gives us a permanent presence, and it allows us to hire the best people in the community to work with us.”

A statistician by training, Pan has hiked and boated hundreds of miles through the rainforest to collect mosquitoes and meet with residents living in malaria-prone areas. And while he says working in-country is not always the most comfortable approach to statistics, it’s the most effective one.

“You can theoretically design a study from your table,” he says. “But in the field, there are tons of things that go wrong, and there are nuances that you get only by seeing how the data are collected. I just feel if you want to be a statistician and you want to interpret your data correctly, you have to be there.”